Dorothy Buchanan

Dorothy Buchanan

1899 - 1985

Country Scotland

Specialisms: Bridges

Career highlights

Why you might have heard of Dorothy Buchanan

Dorothy Buchanan was the first female member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

She helped design the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle, UK, which was known as the George V Bridge when it opened in 1928.

Education

Dorothy was educated at Langholm Academy in Langholm, Scotland.

As a teenager, she spent her spare time drawing to scale and making scale models in clay.

She studied for a BSc in civil engineering at Edinburgh University in 1918, where in 1919, Elizabeth Georgeson was the first woman to graduate in engineering in Scotland.

Dorothy suffered from mumps while she was a student, so it took her four years – instead of three - to complete the course. She graduated in 1923.

Career

After graduating from Edinburgh University, Dorothy caught pneumonia, and was recommended a change of air to help her recovery. She decided to go to London.

In London, she learned that Sir Ralph Freeman, senior partner in Douglas Fox & Partners and consultant to steelwork contractors Dorman Long & Co, was recruiting a team working on the design of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Dorothy was able to impress Sir Ralph, which led to her joining the bridge design staff at Dorman Long’s London office for £4 a week plus overtime. She was his pupil from April 1924.

Other overseas bridges Dorothy helped design included one in Dessouk, over the River Nile, and in Khartoum, Sudan.

In May 1926, Dorothy went to Northern Ireland to work on the Silent Valley Reservoir, to gain the necessary site experience to qualify for ICE membership.

While there, she was mentored by Sir Ernest Moir, a British civil engineer who’s believed to have invented the first medical airlock while working on the Hudson River Tunnel in New York.

After six months in Northern Ireland, she returned to Dorman Long’s bridge design team.

She then worked on the design of the steelwork for the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (built 1925-1928) and Lambeth Bridge (built around 1928-1932).

In May 1927, finding that many of her colleagues were becoming ICE members, Dorothy applied to the Institution for admission as an Associate Member (AMInstCE), the equivalent of CEng MICE in 2017.

To qualify for this, applicants had to have passed degree-level exams and had practical experience.

She passed an interview discussing her experience and was elected an ICE member on 13 December 1927. She became the first woman in Britain to become a qualified civil engineer.

A room at One Great George Street has been renamed in Dorothy's honour.

A room at One Great George Street has been renamed in Dorothy's honour.

“​‌

I felt that I represented all the women in the world. It was my hope that I would be followed by many others.

New Civil Engineer, 1978

Fascinating facts

A room at ICE headquarters, One Great George Street, was named after Dorothy in February 2019.

Dorothy wasn’t the first woman to apply for membership at ICE.

Three years before she did, in 1924, Helen Grimshaw, who was studying engineering at University College, London, applied for student membership.

This led to ICE seeking legal advice, which confirmed that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) act of 1919 meant that “women are eligible for membership … and may … be admitted as students and subsequently as members”. Helen was admitted as a student member on 13 January 1925, but didn’t take her membership further.

Dorothy was born just 16km from where ICE’s first President, Thomas Telford, was born, and grew up surrounded by bridges designed by him.

In 1927, ICE membership was made up of one woman and 9,978 men. In April 2018, there are 12,764 (13.4%) women and 82,164 (86.6%) men.

Notable projects

Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney, Australia

Tyne Bridge, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Lambeth Bridge, London, UK

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